Fostering a Culture of OER Development for STEM Classes

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session Equity and Inclusion

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Brief Abstract

Textbooks often price students out of courses. This is particularly notable in STEM courses where there is a noted lack of diversity. Our office worked to build a culture of utilizing OER materials in courses, particularly in STEM, which resulted in developing OERs locally for a fully no-textbook biology course.


I have been in the Instructional Technology field for 10 years, focusing online course design and faculty collaboration. I am currently an Instructional Technologist and Designer at the Queens College Center for Teaching and Learning, I received my MA from TC, Columbia University in their Instructional Technology, Media and Design program after focusing on the various macro and micro factors that are essential to successful online course design, as well as a mechanism for collaborative faculty development. This work is essential to my work with collaborators. It was remarkably timely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which this framework was utilized in part as we moved hundreds of faculty online. I am a firm believer that online learning and education must be designed with the modality in mind- one cannot just copy and paste in-person materials into an online frame. We must take into account the limitations and affordances of a modality, and how that works in concert with the human element- prior knowledge, cognitive load and the like. I also believe that for design to be successful-one must be flexible with the mechanisms. For today’s learning to be successful, we must analyze and utilize the most effective learning framework, modality, and methodology. Each circumstance should take into account the goals, prior knowledge, motivation, affordances and limitations of the modality, and learning framework. We must adapt and change as we collaborate.

Extended Abstract

While the issue of diversity and access in higher education is often focused purely on admissions data, that is not the whole story. There are many factors that play a role in access, including a student’s socioeconomic background. To help bridge that difference, college courses purport they create an “even playing field” for all students to promote student success. However, this false ideal of an inherent even playing field fails to take into account the factors that impede student success beyond simple admission. One of those factors is often the high price of college textbook costs. OER (Open Education Resources) is a concept focused on substituting exorbitantly priced textbooks and resources for works that are open and free for student use. At other institutions, there are reports of faculty getting kickbacks from publishers for having their students order specific textbooks. As a result, students often spend thousands of dollars on textbooks they might not even open. 

By contrast, our institution's faculty often encourage students to save money on textbooks, including resources about second hand swap sites, rental programs, and popular textbook resale campus Facebook groups in their course and syllabus. As we are a public institution whose student population has a large portion of low income, first generation students this is a constant source of concern for faculty and students alike. As part of our mission is to increase diversity and access for our students, all facets that enhance that mission are used. 


When our Instructional Technologists and Designers collaborate with faculty, we encourage them to use low cost (or no cost to the student) resources whenever possible. This is often based in an overall discussion of equity and access including ensuring all course design and policies are accessible and inclusive. For example, we have a fund to secure Journal licenses for faculty to post relevant materials on the library eReserve system and the course LMS. We have also hosted OER development workshops for faculty to learn how to find, embed, and develop OERs for their courses as well.

We noticed a major problem arose particularly when it came to our STEM classes. Unlike other subjects in which used editions were more or less identical (and available for much cheaper), STEM textbooks contained problems and homework that differed from edition to edition. While the content remained the same, one could only participate fully in the course if they could afford the $200 cost of the textbook per class.

STEM is a particularly skewed field in terms of population representation, with the profession disproportionately having low numbers of minorities and women. As cost is often a major factor, by having yet another roadblock (in this case, exorbitantly priced textbooks and resources), it further skews the population who can seek this path towards the already privileged. 

Seeing this as a problem, CTL worked with the Biology department to change this. The biology department was at the forefront of this change, specifically for their Introductory Biology courses.

The first course in the successive series is Biology 105, which not only has the highest DFWI rates on campus, but is also the largest course on campus. This course serves as the gateway to many courses in the premed and STEM track. One project focused on improving success rates, particularly for minority students is a learning collective based peer mentor/tutoring process. However, we noticed that one of the major challenges in the course is not just learning the content knowledge but the textbook costs for both lecture and lab on top of the tuition. Oftentimes, lower income students hold off on buying textbooks until they know they will not drop the class, or ensure that their limited funds go towards books they know will need. This created a barrier and somewhat unfair advantage for students who were able to purchase the textbooks in the first couple of weeks of class. In order to ameliorate this, several Biology faculty worked together in developing an OER for students to use.

The Biology OER Team was led by one faculty in Biology who also worked at the Center for Teaching and Learning. They led development by collaborating with other Biology faculty on different aspects of the OER/Biology course materials development.

The Biology 105 OER was comprised of four main components: 

  • Histology Atlas
  • Histology Checklist
  • Lecture Study Guides
  • Lab Manuals 

The Biology OER Team collaborated on these developments by looking not just what was essential for success in this course, but longitudinally what would be needed as resources and knowledge for later in the course series as well. For example, a major component of many biology textbooks and courses is the visualization and identification of key aspects of tissue. The histology atlas detailed essential components that students needed to know, geared towards the larger context of the system. 

Another major reason that an OER was deemed more impactful than having students use older edition textbooks, is in textbooks often the only major change is the problem sets used. While this may seem a minor part of the cost, this alone forces students to pay for the new textbook to ensure they are on the same page as their classmates. The OER Biology development team built the lab manual and lecture study guides to update with the material as well as ensure that no student would fail as a result of insufficient funds. 

Not wanting to limit these resources to students at our campus, in true OER fashion, we published many of the resources on our university's online Academic Commons Resource Center. Since it’s publishing, we have seen it downloaded over 1000 times by other entities at our university. Since the Academic Commons is for faculty use, we can extrapolate a significant ultimate student impact. 

Since the launch of the resources, students responded positively to each resource in our end of semester survey. They reported that it dealt directly with the course content as opposed to the more generic textbooks, as well as the immediate financial concerns. Another advantage of developing this OER over using a standard textbook was incorporating student feedback on iteratively improving and growing key areas that needed clarity or improvement. We hope to grow this project by developing similar OER resources for later courses in the series, as well as other STEM courses offered at our institution. 

Level of Participation: 

This is a highly participatory session. Rather than lecture at the audience for 45 minutes, the presenters will frame the session around conversations key components of developing OERs, how factors such as textbook cost can impact access and equity, and how to launch similar initiatives with your faculty/campus. Throughout the session, the presenters will engage the audience through tools such as Mentimeter and the Zoom chat, and frame the conversation around that.

A large chunk of the session will also be spent in scaffolded engagement breakout rooms. Essentially, after presenting the problem to a large audience members will have the option of moving into a breakout room guided by a presenter focused on topics that the audience seemed most interested in earlier in the presentation.

To support and engage our audience at all levels, engagement during the session will be scaffolded. During the breakout rooms participants can also choose to engage: 

  • Discussing with the other members of the session via audio/video in Zoom 
  • By sharing resources and ideas in a shared collaborative resource page.

Session Goals: 

  • Understand the process for developing OERs.
  • Understand why OER helps mitigate related equity issues.
  • Learn how to start such an intuitive at your campus, including having conversations with faculty about using OER’s and developing your own.